Let’s play a game: is bridge a sport? – The Guardian

Is debating whether bridge is a sport or a game a sport or a game? It’s neither, is it, because a conclusion isn’t arrived at under a specific set of rules that govern the manner in which points can be scored. This is the defining thing that sports and games have in common.

Another thing that sports and games have in common is that the conclusions of such competitions only matter to the people who decide that they matter to them. Players of the sport or game want to win. Those who support the players want them to win. Generally, no one else cares, even though they may be happy to acknowledge that it must be terrific to be great at something, or even to take huge vicarious pleasure from appreciating others who are great at something.

Well, up to a point. Huge sporting events, such as the Olympics, draw in people who aren’t usually interested in sport, because all humans understand that it’s important for a few shining examples of humanity to push at the boundaries of what humans understand themselves to be capable of. And, somehow, running the fastest seems much more profoundly impressive than being able to get more tricks than any other bridge player.

But why? Obviously, there has never been a time when dedicating your vast intelligence to bridge was more sensible than dedicating it to science or, even, let’s face it, art. And yet, equally obviously, while there was a time when the fastest runner was awesomely useful to the survival of his group, that time has passed. So sports and games are now, more than ever before, equal in their triviality.

Both are made practical only by the rather banal but immensely popular framing device that dictates that success will confer prestige, fame and money. Bridge wants to be a sport, not a game, for precisely this reason. It’ll get lottery funding. It might get to be in the Olympics. It’ll attract more players and more supporters, and it’ll have a much higher profile. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why games are seen as trivial while sports are seen as important, there’s masses of evidence that this is the case.

But, given the way we live now, it’s actually a bit weird that nurturing physical prowess for its own sake is seen as important, while developing mental prowess for its own sake is seen as trivial. After all, we owe our highly technological and highly cultural lives to mental prowess rather than physical prowess. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s collectively presumed that bridge players could be off curing cancer instead of playing cards. Football players, not so much.

But that’s not true. It’s broadly acknowledged that something called “footballing intelligence” exists: people who seem entirely unable to string six words together if the six words aren’t “at the end of the day” – naming no names – are able to achieve and display their genius, their utter command of mind and body, in one complex, particular and highly specific way.

It’s not outlandish to presume that “bridge intelligence” exists too, that for some people – naming no names, this time because I don’t know any – the sum of their particular gifts and talents can only be fully realised in the practice of bridge. The assumption has to be that a brilliant bridge player or a brilliant football player might be capable only of being a crushingly average cancer-curer.

I suppose that for a lot of people the distinction between a game and a sport is obvious. For them, bridge just doesn’t have a large enough element of physicality to be a sport. And it does sound a bit pathetic when the English Bridge Union declares that shuffling, dealing, fanning out your cards, sorting them, holding them and looking at them are all physical activities, and that therefore bridge involves much more physical activity than shooting, which is deemed a sport.

It’s easy to see the difference here. Shooting is about your brain being able to control hand, eye and perspective. Bridge isn’t “about” any of those things. Players utilise those skills to organise the playing of bridge, but how well they do those things doesn’t dictate how good they are at bridge. For bridge, you need to be good at loads of other things as well. So, if the skill set is so much wider, why is bridge stuck with the trivial label “game”, while shooting has the elevated label “sport”?

I think it’s because we don’t understand our brains. We think of them as machines made of meat that control our bodies, when in fact our entire body, including the brain, is a single machine made of meat. Dyspraxia is rife in my family. Lots of dyspraxic people can’t drive. I can’t drive. I just don’t have that specific synthesis of physical and mental skills that emerges in most people, to a greater or lesser degree, as “driving intelligence”. (Driving is, of course, a sport.)

I don’t know if the problems lie in the way my body sends information to my brain, or the way my brain sends information to my body. I don’t know if there are malfunctions in the way the brain transmits information between its sections or hemispheres. All I know is that a vast range of strengths and deficits adds up to “can’t drive” in the way that other people’s strengths and deficits add up to “awesome at bridge” or “football great”.

My point is that brain prowess is physical prowess, so therefore bridge is a sport, and so is thinking about whether it should be. Whether I’ve played this one well or badly is for all you good sports out there to decide. If you’re game, make up your own rules. It only matters, after all, if you decide that it does.


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